IDF appears to have hit Gaza tunnel in response to mortar attacks
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IDF appears to have hit Gaza tunnel in response to mortar attacks

In vague statement, army says it targeted 'significant terror infrastructure,' warns it will strike 'above and below ground'

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative. Palestinian children stand next to a crater in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip on August 22, 2016, following an Israeli airstrike the night before that targeted Hamas positions in response to a rocket fired from the Palestinian enclave that hit the Israeli city of Sderot. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
Illustrative. Palestinian children stand next to a crater in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip on August 22, 2016, following an Israeli airstrike the night before that targeted Hamas positions in response to a rocket fired from the Palestinian enclave that hit the Israeli city of Sderot. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Shortly after 1 a.m. on Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces announced that its jets had just struck “significant terror infrastructure” in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for mortar fire on Wednesday.

According to official Palestinian media, that “significant terror infrastructure” was farmland in the southern Gaza Strip.

It’s more likely that the target was, in fact, something beneath the farmland — a tunnel. What is less clear is to whom it belonged.

The IDF strike came after three projectiles were fired at the Eshkol region in southern Israel over the course of a few hours on Wednesday and amid a substantial increase in the number of attacks coming from the Gaza Strip over the past two months.

The IDF would not elaborate on the nature of the “significant terror infrastructure” it targeted.

Last year, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot responded to criticism that the military was targeting “sand dunes and empty bunkers” in its strikes in Gaza, telling the Knesset that the IDF is actively thwarting the tunnels and publicly acknowledging for the first time that the army has the technology to do so.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot attends a State Control Committee meeting in the Knesset on March 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Every missile or shell we fired was at a valuable target, at underground targets,” Eisenkot said in March. “We have developed a capability that allows us to strike them.”

On Thursday, the army said it was “prepared for any scenario” and would not allow any breach of Israeli sovereignty.

“The IDF will continue to use all the measures at its disposal, above and below ground, to thwart attacks against Israelis,” the military said.

Noticeably missing from the army’s statement about the attack was the nature of the target.

In general, the army names the targets of its retaliatory strikes in Gaza, which are almost exclusively military positions belonging to the Hamas terrorist group, the rulers of the Gaza Strip.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Hamas’s leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar wave during a rally marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Islamist terror movement, in Gaza City, on December 14, 2017. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

As a matter of policy, Israel holds Hamas responsible for any attacks emanating from the coastal enclave. The understanding is that by targeting Hamas, it will spur the terrorist group to rein in more radical elements in Gaza.

On Wednesday, however, it was reported that the military increasingly saw Hamas as unable to control the other terrorist groups in the Strip, notably the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the IDF believes carried out a mortar shell attack last Friday.

The determination by the army indicated that the IDF might be changing its policy and could begin to directly target groups that carry out attacks, rather than only Hamas.

Mourners carry the coffin of Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement terrorist Arafat Abu Morshed during the funeral at the Bureij refugee camp, in central Gaza of Palestinians killed in an Israeli operation to blow up a tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israel, on October 31, 2017. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

After the army on October 30 destroyed one of the group’s attack tunnels that entered southern Israel from the Gaza Strip — killing 12 of its members, including two senior commanders — the Islamic Jihad vowed revenge.

The first act of retaliation came exactly one month later, in the form of a dozen mortar shells fired at a military position northeast of the Strip, which caused damage but no Israeli injuries.

One of the reasons behind the IDF’s assessment that the group was responsible for Friday’s attack is that the same Iranian-made, mass-produced 120mm mortar shells used in the barrage were also launched in the Islamic Jihad’s November 30 attack.

The past month has seen a dramatic increase in the number of rocket and mortar attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip, reaching a level not seen since before the 2014 Gaza war.

On Tuesday, Eisenkot responded to the calls from Israeli politicians and public figures for “maximum force” retaliations, dismissing them as “irresponsible.”

“We’ve destroyed many tunnels and we will continue to destroy them, resulting in the deaths of terrorists, something that has encouraged terrorist groups, especially [salafist] ones, to carry out attacks,” he said.

“We do not need to rush into things, but if we have to, we have the means to do so,” Eisenkot noted.

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